We are Stardust, we are Really Disconcerted.

I went to Visions of the Universe exhibition for the second time, today, to catch it before it closed.

It was sublime, in an Edmund Burke way. Burke suggests that the sublime happens when something intensely excites the emotions, off the end of the usual scale – it can be beautiful (art) or breathtaking (dramatic landscapes) or terrifying (haunted ruins). Romantic writers took up the notion, as did Gothic novelists – something like Frankenstein, where the author is both cultivating dread, and showing off stark arctic views, is top-notch sublime.


Visions of the Universe struck me as sublime because the images are both very beautiful and utterly gobsmacking, unsettling and alienating. Sizes of galaxies, ages of stars, speeds of light, intensities of forces – the scale of the things on display is ridiculous. You see a beautiful thing, and then find that it is so much bigger, older, further away, brighter, hotter, more toxic, colder or weirder than you can possibly imagine. See the picture on the poster, just above? Gorgeous, isn’t it? It’s a star dying, shedding its outer matter. I repeatedly pin-balled between ‘you can see this! You can grasp this!’ and ‘you can’t even come close to this.’

This collision of the visible and the fantastical is deliberate – I was lucky enough (on my first visit) to meet Marek Kukula, the public astronomer who curated the exhibition, and because I like to impress intelligent people with my suavity, I said: ‘It’s faked, isn’t it? I mean, they’re too incredible to be real. You made it up. With Photoshop.’ And because he’s gracious, he explained that the point was to show things that were completely real, but which often couldn’t be seen. Many of the images are coloured to indicate the presence of certain gases, or to show the depth of craters and the height of mountains, or created using X-rays or infra-red. So you end up with an intuitive grasp of something that cannot really be squeezed into your mind.

This mental squeeze-box effect is summed up in a quote from Einstein, near the end of the exhibition: “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

It made me wonder whether, if we went into deep space, we would be disappointed. If you hold the visible spectrum – developed by one species, on one planet – up to the range of things you can encounter in deep space, it’s like holding up a Farrow and Ball colour chart to a volcano.¬† (But I only wondered that for a minute, because it wouldn’t be disappointing at all, because the things we can currently capture are only (in turn) a fragment of what exists out there.)

Anyway, the sublime messed with my mood something chronic. The exhibition lowers you in slowly, starting with the moon and the moving out into the solar system before it hits deep space, but I still shuffled round reeling and sniffling. A long wall showed a projected image of the surface of Mars- I’ll never go to Mars! I had never previously had any interest in going to Mars, but my brain had a little boggle because it was right there and yet I’ll never stand on it.

The Deep Space section flattened me. So many extremes were depicted and described that it gave me vertigo of several different types – chrono-vertigo, thermo-vertigo. I had a little sit-down in the cinema section and let a lot of obligatory predictable thoughts (‘we are so tiny our lives are so short we are like sparrows flying through HALLS man’) scroll through me.

I could barely look at the really lovely visualisation of galaxies forming because the contrast – between the featherlight collisions and balletic whorls, and the sizes and timescales involved – was too intense.

I came out wanting very much to eat a hot meal and hold a puppy.

Which was brilliant! An incredible morning. Anyway, my four favourite new space facts:

  1. Jupiter’s red spot is a storm system bigger than earth
  2. There are rivers of helium on Titan
  3. The pressure on Neptune is so great it may rain tiny diamonds
  4. The sun’s gravity bends starlight

I’m not the first person to have thought of the astronomical/sublime connection and have been happily reading other people’s interpretations of it.

I was delighted to contribute to a collection of short stories to accompany the exhibition, several of which toy with the astronomical sublime, but which – and how – needs some more thinking on my part.


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